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India, China need to defuse volatile situation; army chief's belligerent posturing is uncalled for

India-China ties have once again taken a hit, with the stand-off between the PLA (People's Liberation Army) soldiers and the Indian Army on the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China having the three nations on the edge. Tension between the two Asian giants escalated since mid-June when the Indian Army came to Bhutan's aid to stop the construction of a motorable road from China to Jomperi near a Bhutanese army camp.

This is being seen in China as a provocative act, of Delhi flexing its muscles. Is this part of a new, muscular foreign policy of the Modi government? Or is this a one-off incident that wasn't handled well on the ground level by the field commanders of both sides?

Whatever it is, it's imperative to quickly diffuse the tension and talk through the problem. Scaling up the rhetoric will help neither party.

Caught between the dragon and the elephant is tiny Bhutan, which relies on India for its security. It certainly does not wish to be trapped between the two large Asian rivals. The Chinese foreign ministry as well as the PLA have accused India of crossing into Chinese territory to halt construction of a road. The ministry also released photogrpahs to prove its point.

Representational image of PLA sodliers at the Indo-China border. Reuters

Representational image of PLA sodliers at the Indo-China border. Reuters

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is one of India's closest allies. With a small army, Thimphu is hardly in a position to protect itself and leaves it to India to look after its defence interests. It does not have diplomatic ties with China, though the latter has been trying its best to have an embassy in Thimphu. China has protested to India, both in Beijing and in New Delhi over the 16 June incident.

At the same time, Bhutan too has protested the construction of a road in Doklam by China, at a region where the border between China and Bhutan remains disputed. Beijing and Thimphu had signed a bilateral agreement in 1998 to maintain peace and tranquility on the border. The dispute was to be solved through talks between the two parties and without resorting to violence.

Initially it was the Royal Bhutanese Army which asked China to stop construction work. When Bhutan's plea was not heeded, Indian soldiers went in to halt the work. In retaliation, PLA destroyed Indian bunkers. Talks between commanders in the area haven't helped ease the tension. Earlier in 2013 and 2014, incursions by the PLA across the Line of Actual Control in the western sector had led to ratcheting up of tensions along the border.

In India's first official note on the happenings at the tri-junction, New Delhi said, "India is deeply concerned at recent Chinese actions and has conveyed to the Chinese government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India."

India and China are both proud of the fact that despite a major border dispute, which has not yet been resolved despite 16 rounds of talks, the border remains peaceful. Not a single shot has been fired since the two countries decided to hold talks between their special representatives. At the same time, they have also continued to do business with each other.

The serious nature of the current crisis, if not carefully handled by both sides, could lead to a major confrontation in the Himalayas.

The tri-junction in the Sikkim sector is also of strategic significance for New Delhi. The area is not far from the narrow strip of land called the "chicken neck" which connects the Northeast to the rest of India. This narrow strip is the lifeline for the region and the Indian Army in the Northeast gets its suppliers through this region. In case of a border war, China can quickly cut off the main supply route to the Northeast and ensure that Indian Army's supplies are stopped. So while India at one level is keeping its commitment to Bhutan, this does impinge greatly on New Delhi's own security considerations.

Army chief Bipin Rawat, who was in Sikkim on Thursday to review the situation, has not helped matters with his belligerent talk. He was quoted by news reports as saying that India could take on a "two-and-a-half front war", possibly referring to China, Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists.

This kind of cavalier statement from a serving army chief is new to India, and is something which has troubled many retired army officers as well. Reacting to general Rawat's statement, which was dubbed as "war mongering" by China, they have also reminded India about the "lessons of history" — an obvious reference to the humiliating defeat PLA troops handed out, when it overran Arunachal and reached the foothills of Assam. The Chinese abruptly turned back, but neither the Indian Army nor the people of India have forgotten that humiliation, and have since been extremely suspicious of China.

Many government loyalists have reminded China that there is a vast difference between 1962, when the army was unprepared, to 2017 when India is in a much better position to take on the PLA. Many within the Indian armed forces also want to get back at Beijing.

However it is one thing to boast about taking on China, quite another to actually do it. While India's military capabilities are vastly improved, they are not a patch on China. The second largest economy in the world has progressed economically and used its excess funds to phenomenally modernise its military capabilities. It is foolish for an army chief to issue belligerent statements at a time of renewed tension.

Neither India nor China want a war, and the only way out is talk, talk and more talk. All the diplomatic and political tools must be used to bring the situation back to normal.

India-China relations are already under strain over Beijing's refusal to allow India entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) over UN sanctions against Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, and at the spread of Chinese footprints across India's neighbourhood, especially the China Pakistan Economic Corridor which runs through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK).

India regards POK as its own, and considers building infrastructure there a direct hit on its sovereignty. India's refusal to attend the 'One Belt One Road' mega summit in Beijing was also because of this. Ties between India and China were already fragile and could get much worse unless better sense prevails.

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2017 15:26 PM

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